Language Exchange Web-sites: Hints and Tips on How to Use Them
How do language exchange websites work?
As their name suggests, these web-sites offer opportunities for those learning another language to hook up with native speakers of this who are learning their language. So through these reciprocal relationships everybody should be able to practise and develop skills in their ‘new’ language. A Google search throws up at least half a dozen websites of these operating across a wide range of languages. Some appear to be a lot more complex to use than others but most appear to have been modelled on social networking sites such as Face book. The best advertised (via Google) appears to be www.mylanguageexchange.com. My own experience of these sites includes Friends Abroad (now run by www.Babbel.com), www.Sharedtalk.com, of which I am still a member and Soziety whose web-site is currently under re-development and not functioning.
Language exchange web-sites typically offer different ways of communicating:
- You can send messages internally within the web-site, for example, to make initial contacts with people who match the profile you are seeking.
- You can chat on the site in real time with selected friends or in a chat room with whoever happens to be there
Once contact with individuals has been established you are encouraged to exchange e-mails with your chosen contacts or to talk to them using Skype or Messenger. In other words you don’t have to come on to the web-site to find or communicate with them.
It’s difficult to know how many people actually use these web-sites on a regular basis. For example, ‘Mylanguageexchange’ currently claims to have ‘over 1 million members from over 130 countries, practising 115 languages’ but this does not necessarily mean that they are all currently active. A few searches and my own experience suggest that most users are young people: the vast majority are probably under 35 with relatively few in their 50s or older. As a native English speaker trying to improve my Spanish I noticed that there were many young men working in the IT industry or as engineers who were very keen to improve English, sometimes in a great hurry, because they needed to do so for work-related reasons.
My personal experience
In spite of being older than the typical use of these web-sites I had no problems at all in locating or attracting the interest of native Spanish speakers who wanted to learn English. This is probably due at least partly to the fact that English is the world's first language in terms of number of native speakers and is key for business and travelling. Spanish (with most of South America to draw on) is the third language so there are lots of users of language exchange websites who speak it but nevertheless there appeared to be a huge imbalance between those wanting to learn English and those wanting to learn Spanish. There was one particular evening when I received about 30 messages from people wanting to chat or speak to me. This was apparently due to an advert on Spanish national television for the website in question which generated huge although perhaps fleeting interest. No doubt another reason for this imbalance is that many native English speakers simply can't see the point of learning another language -- a huge mistake, in my opinion.
It is one thing, though, to make the initial contact, it is quite another to continue to be an active member of the website’s ‘community’. My own experience (and some posts on the web-sites themselves) suggest that many lose interest quite quickly. My list of Skype contacts includes 58 people who contacted me initially via language exchange websites. Of these I only ever see at most half a dozen online, of which I personally only talk to three. So it looks as if a lot are no longer connecting to Skype at all for language exchange, or any other purposes. If I was their only contact, their ‘dropping out’ may be partly my fault for exchanging contact details with more people than I realistically had the time to talk with! However I did talk quite happily to some over a period of weeks or months who then ‘disappeared’ - my best guess is that, for whatever reason, they simply lost motivation or other activities took priority. It's important not to take this personally and to value the opportunity to talk, even if only once or twice, to so many different people - and with so many different accents!
Benefits and challenges
I can’t stress enough that signing up to these web-sites ‘has done wonders’ for my spoken Spanish. Prior to doing so for the first time, which was about three years ago, I had completed a distance learnig programe in Spanish through the Open University. (For the benefit of UK readers this means I had achieved a standard equivalent to about halfway through an A level course). I was also attending a local course, supposedly in Spanish advanced conversation, but in spite of the course title this provided very limited opportunities for speaking and there was a huge variation in the level of Spanish of those attending. As a result, although I had a reasonable grasp of grammar at intermediate level, I was really struggling with spoken Spanish, understanding as well as speaking - I especially lacked confidence in the latter.
I signed up to my first language exchange site at the beginning of the summer holidays and the improvement in my ability to express myself in Spanish was so dramatic that my fellow students noticed this straight away when the class re-started six weeks later. And it wasn't just my spoken Spanish that improved. The whole experience gave my confidence and motivation such a boost that I became much more willing to actually spend time studying the language systematically - prior to the university course I had dabbled on and off for years in the language. Initially I used e-mail a lot to get to know people, which really helped to improve my written Spanish. I used this less as my confidence in talking to brand new contacts over Skype increased. However more recently my two main language exchange ‘buddies’ have been really helpful in correcting some written pieces that I have done for a local U3A (University of the Third Age) Spanish conversation group which we have just set up.
Establishing contact and working through the initial exchange of information (What do you do? Where do you live? How long have you been studying the language? Do you have family?) is relatively easy although if you go through this a lot of times with different people the whole thing can feel very stereotyped. Some of these initial contacts have led to very interesting conversations with people of both sexes and all ages in a huge range of Spanish speaking South American countries as well as peninsular Spain. These included a thirty something Cuban who explained that it was illegal for him to talk to people outside the country on Skype and a young law student from Vallodalid, Spain who would always have a list of discussion topics at hand and who switched the conversation between English and Spanish every 10 or 15 minutes on the dot. I subsequently lost contact with both of these partners - let’s hope that the Cuban wasn’t arrested!
What is really difficult, though, is sustaining the relationship over a period of more than a few weeks, solely through talking via Skype or Messenger. In my view this requires authentic dialogue- not just talking about things for the sake of practising the language. Language exchange relationships are built on exactly the same foundations as other less task-oriented ones: not just shared interests but a feeling that you’re on the same wave-length, a real interest in each other and a willingness to share views, feelings and needs. I realise this may be an idiosyncratic view related to my age and sex; young men may be quite happy to chat about football or pop music (a bit limiting for their vocabulary though) and young women about other fairly trivial topics. However developing a ‘real’ relationship is what worked for me and may well work best for some of you as well. On the other hand its probably why, three years on, I have only three firmly established language exchange contacts, one of which I have already met in person and a second who I plan to meet next year even though it will mean travelling to South America to see her!
Hints and tips on making the best use of language exchange web-sites
- These web-sites are only really suitable for people at intermediate rather than beginner level. Those such as My Language Exchange do stress this but I have certainly talked to users with very little English who seem to think that talking is a shortcut to learning the language more or less from scratch. Obviously if you don't both have a rudimentary knowledge of the other’s language and an ability to converse in this you can’t have a meaningful conversation or get to know each other.
- When you are drafting your profile or pen picture do include at least a couple of sentences in the language you are trying to learn- ideally you could write this in both. As with all websites where you're trying to meet people, do take time to say a bit about yourself, your interests and why you're learning the language as well as posting your photo. Just because you're an English speaker doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to ‘sell yourself’ a little! (I’ve talked to other English speaking language learners who have had a lot less success than I have in generating introductory messages from others.)
- In my experience you are also more likely to get a response when you write for the first time to your selected contact if some of this is also in the language you are learning. The fact that you write in this will give the recipient confidence in your ability to speak it - don't forget to check your grammar and spelling before clicking on ‘send’. Also try to say a bit more in this message about why you are interested in talking with them in particular or what you think you could offer. A single sentence saying ‘I want to help you with your language and hope that you will help me with mine in return’ is not going to make you stand out from the crowd.
- As most of you will know, learning a language is hard work and, contrary to what some language courses claim, there are no short-cuts. It's probably better to see opportunities to practise the spoken language as a complement to other types of learning rather than as a substitute for these, especially if you care about grammar! (I’ve talked to some people who speak English quite fluently but who make very elementary grammatical errors.) For me language exchange on Skype and Messenger has been a way of enabling my spoken Spanish to ‘catch up with’ my progress in other elements of the language although it probably hasn’t contributed a lot to my ability to write it. Personally, if I don't see the words written down I tend not to register them in my memory and I need to write them down myself – in context - if I’m going to stand any chance at all of retaining them.
- Do stick firmly to the rule that your contacts should be native speakers of the language that you’re trying to learn but otherwise don't be too ‘picky’. Initially I thought I would prefer to talk to Spaniards on the grounds that there are many differences in vocabulary between their Spanish and those of different South American countries – although the grammar is surprisingly similar. In fact my two best contacts are from Argentina and Chile respectively. Also don't automatically rule out people on the basis of age.
- Do spend some time hunting for people that you ‘click with’. If your heart sinks when somebody contacts you, and you feel like changing your status to ‘Away’ because you really can’t be bothered, you’re talking to the wrong person!
- Do try to allocate the time equally between yourself and your language partner. It's much better to have 10 or 15 minutes with you both talking the same language before both of you then switch to the other rather than you always speaking in Spanish, for example, and your partner in English. This can get very confusing and means you won’t get any chance to listen to natural conversational Spanish. The ‘turn and turn about’ approach enables you to get into the swing of things and maximise the chances of you're starting to think in the other language. In practice this may be difficult to achieve and you may well find yourself talking a mixture of the two at the same time but, whatever you do, don't hog the conversation! This is certainly one of the reasons I discontinued contact with several new web-site members.
- If you are expecting to talk to one of your contacts do try to spend a few minutes thinking about what you might like to talk about, for example, what you’ve done this week – at least until you can be sure that the conversation will ‘come’ spontaneously. This helps to ensure that you won’t spend all the time listening – assuming the other person has more to say – and that there won’t be any awkward silences.
- During the conversation try and take a note of what you have learnt or of ideas/views/experiences you couldn’t talk about because you were unsure how to say them in the other language. You can then go back to these afterwards so that you can look up things or remind yourself of key vocabulary.
- Don't expect your partner automatically to be an expert in the grammar of their native language unless you have reason to think that they may be, for example, because they teach it. It's probably a good idea to avoid correcting each other's grammar anyway because this disrupts the flow of conversation (and won’t do much for your self-confidence). If your partner does correct you don't accept everything they say as ‘gospel’ because they might be wrong. Remember that the main purpose is for you to practice speaking and listening.
So do take the plunge! I know, from my own experience that the whole thing can be very daunting but if you are really serious about learning another language this will get you through the first few contacts and conversations, after which it will get much easier. The rewards are potentially enormous: making real strides towards fluency, getting to know people in a different country or countries and who knows, making some new friends for life.